New Madrid shake in SE Illinois?

At the time of the earthquake, in November, 1811 [correct dates of main quakes were Dec 1811-Feb 1812], Mr. [Yearby] Land was a boy past nine years old; but the happening of that four or five months shaking made an impression on his mind that was clear and bright when he was ninety years old. He said the ground would shake and then rock and roll in long waves. After a short quiet spell, there would be another shock and roll.

White County ILHis father had a clearing in the woods and just on the south edge of what is known as Big Prairie. In this woodland, extending southward to the hills on the Little Wabash, were white oak trees of wondrous size. There was rarely any undergrowth. This primeval forest was like a well kept park. I remember those trees.

I mention this timber to give point to Mr. Land's narrative. He said in these long continued rollings, the tall timber would weave their tops together, interlock their branches, then part and fly back the other way, and when they did this "the blossom ends of the limbs would pop like whip lashes; and the ground was covered with broken stuff."

View Larger Map

In the prairie, about two miles east of his father's house, a big crack was made in the ground, and you could not see to the bottom of it. The ground on the south of the creek sunk down about two feet. "This crack" was on the land afterward owned by Mr. Jacob Parker on the N. W. Qr. of Sec. 35, T, 5, S. R. 10 E 3d p. m.

It was well defined when I first saw the place in 1858. Across a field that sloped slightly upward to the north, was a well marked line of uplift of downfall. The lower side to the south. This line extended east and west. It started on some high ground, west of the field, extended eastward through the woodland and was lost in some swampland further on. It could be traced about two miles. The field was in cultivation for wheat when I first saw it, and the slope of the uplift, or northern side, was about six feet long, as it had been worked down in cultivation.

South and eastward from this farm was a wide extent of low, flat, untimbered land, extending to the Marshall Hills, on the Big Wabash, eastward, and nearly to the Little Wabash southward. In those days this land was not overflowed by the Big Wabash. It was covered by a verdurous growth of grasses and was a splendid summer and winter range, or pasture for horses, cattle and swine.

There were many square miles of this level plain, and over it, in the earthquake time, piles and piles of pure, snow white sand were heaved up. In the words of Uncle Yearby Land, as we called him, those piles "were from the size of a bee-gum too three or four wagon loads."

To understand this, you will have to know what a "bee-gum" was. It was a section about twenty inches long, cut from a hollow gum log about fourteen or eighteen inches in diameter. It was placed, with many others of its kind, open end down on a raised platform of split logs. The top end was closed in with riven clapboards weighted down with stones; or pinned down with wooden pegs. In these, vast swarms of bees, unvexed by moth or other enemy of civilization, stored their honey, which was a splendid substitute for the sugar and molasses of later times.

This sand was so white and clean that, in the words of mr. Land, "it would not stain or soil the whitest linen." These piles of sand showed us evidence of water. The sand remained in piles until washed down by succeeding rains.

In this shaking and rolling of the earth, from November until the following March, no buildings were damaged and only one person hurt.

as told by Daniel Berry

The Associated Press released a story in early June 2010 which we feel had a very misleading first paragraph. We (website editor) submitted this op-ed type article to the Southeast Missourian editors, who indicated they would likely run what's below.


I believe many Midwestern newspaper editors blindly trusted the Associated Press and got "taken" by a recent AP story which said scientists are beginning to doubt that the New Madrid Fault caused several large earthquakes in 1811-12.

The Southeast Missourian and even the prestigious Chicago Tribune carried the story, verbatim. I can see a harried AP editor trying to simplify the lead, to help readers understand the complexities. But the rewrite bent the facts way too far.

The lead said:

"New research by U.S. Geological Survey scientists is casting doubt on the long-held idea that the New Madrid fault zone in Missouri's Bootheel unleashed a series of devastating earthquakes in 1811 and 1812."

A quick refresher: All was calm and the sliver of moon was bright, after 2 a.m. December 16th, 1811, when the earth suddenly shook violently, west of Blytheville. Big Lake was formed. Find it on a map west of Blytheville air base. Most of Southeast Missouri south of the Diversion Channel drains into it.

Two more big quakes hit on the same morning; one near Steele and the other near Caruthersville. The town of Little Prairie was washed away. Some 100 Little Prairie residents found themselves waist deep in water as the land began to sink. Crevasses opened and closed, slapping water above the treetops. The smell of subterranean roaring, sulfur and coal dust surely made them think hell was opening up. You can find its spot by looking midway across the Mississippi from the big grain elevator at Caruthersville. They carried their youngsters and belongings eight miles on their shoulders, to higher ground near the present Hayti. The information comes from the book "The Earthquake that Never Went Away" by David Stewart.

Here's where we stray from the Bootheel. The second big quake came January 23, 1812. It was placed somewhere near Caruthersville, but its center was not well defined. Way up near Carmi, Illinois, 130 air miles from New Madrid, about the same time, a two-mile crack in the prairie shot wagon loads of pure white sand to the surface, and raised the northern slope of the uplift by six feet. "You could not see the bottom" of the crack, according to then landowner Yearby Land. There's some expert speculation that this was the epicenter of the second big quake.

The third major quake, in February, crossed the crooks of the river at least three times, throwing dams, holes, and waterfalls as much as 30 feet high across the Mississippi. The quake was probably centered within sight of the big smokestacks at Marston. Several boats had just made it to the crooks in the river the day before, because of melting ice upstream. Again, in early morning hours, the boatmen's peaceful sleep was broken by the boats suddenly going upstream "at the speed of a fast horse" "had to hold my hat on", while trees were continually falling into the river. The air smelled of coal dust and sulfur, with a horrendous underground thunder. The current gradually reversed its flow in several hours. One of the new waterfalls was within earshot of New Madrid, and its residents could hear unsuspecting flatboat riders yell for help, for a couple days.

An engineer in Louisville, Ky., kept careful count of the shakes' number and intensity, and counted almost 2,000 of them, before they subsided the following spring.

There is pressure from community development, industrial and tourism folks, asking, "Are we SURE we need to build expensive quake-resistance into our buildings. In 1991, Memphis city and county governments cooperated in building a big pyramid for tourism, sports and meeting events, that is taller than the Statue of Liberty and the size of six football fields. Then they realized it was built on a sandbar, and sand turns to jelly when earthquake pressure forces in water and it loses its friction. Some 20,000 sporting event spectators could wash down the river in a sudden quake. So the pyramid sits, largely unused lately.

Some university professors have been claiming for a decade that the New Madrid Fault is dying, and perhaps was a rebound from global pressure of the glaciers. They've tried to measure in millimeters per year, how much the fault is moving. The measurement is important when two plates meet, as in California's faults. But New Madrid is in the middle of a tectonic plate, and scientists are not sure those measurements mean anything here.

The concern of seismologists Douglas Wiens, and Michael Wysession, at Washington University in St. Louis, is that the New Madrid Fault may have seen its day and the Wabash Fault is the new kid on the block. They publicly made the statement two years ago. And they do not work for the USGS.

A new fault near Marianna, Ark., southwest of Memphis, in line with the New Madrid Seismic Zone, but not a part of it, has been discovered. The soil in the cotton fields is white with its sand. Evidence is that it erupted with about a magnitude 7.0, some 5,000 years ago, "and may do so again" according to a Little Rock seismologist.

Another fault, the Porter's Gap, or Meeman-Shelby Fault, which runs along the bluffs for 30 miles, just northwest of Memphis gave a strong shake 2,000 years ago. A seismologist at University of Memphis warns these kinds of faults can lay dormant for a few thousand years, then suddenly come to life again.

The head of the Earthquake Research Center (CERI) at Memphis says "Saying that earthquakes will suddenly stop in an area that has had numerous large earthquakes in the past is an extraordinary claim. Extraordinary claims need extraordinary evidence. We simply do not have the deep understanding necessary to make a prediction like this."

Here's some more comforting news. Susan Hough, with the USGS, has re-looked at old news accounts of the 1811-12 quakes, and concludes they are more on the magnitude of 7.0 instead of high sevens or even eights. And maybe it only rang the church bells in Charleston, SC, instead of the Charlestown suburb of Boston. The Boston newspapers of that era never mentioned the quake ringing church bells, although low-lying areas of the Carolinas and Georgia reported residents feeling like they were adrift on rough oceans during the quakes.

A magnitude 7.0 quake would still be enough to shake most of North America, but it could leave a few more roads and bridges intact. Every two-tenths drop in magnitude cuts the intensity in half.

And the folks at CERI still say we're overdue for a 100-year, magnitude 6.0 quake, like the one in 1895 north of Charleston, Mo.

I began a website after the 1990 Iben Browning hubbub over whether the moon's pull would disrupt the New Madrid fault, and have continued on my own to keep it current with fair, accurate, documented information. When Hurricane Katrina hit, it was getting 35 visitors a day. Rush Limbaugh said, "there's this thing in Missouri that will make Katrina look like a Sunday school picnic," and the numbers leaped. Now it gets 200-400 visitors a day, occasionally into the thousands. It can be found at [this site] or by searching "new madrid fault intro".